Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
Taken from the poem by Wilfred Owen, “Dulce et Decorum Est”, these words speak of the horror visited upon soldiers exposed to gas attacks in WWI. Such was the dread, that the mere whisper of an imminent gas attack injected fear and panic into the front lines. Indeed, the psychological impact, it is said, was in many ways as great as the physical effects.
“A cynical and barbarous disregard of the well-known usages of civilised war”, was how the commander of British Expeditionary Force, Sir John French lambasted the first gas attacks by the Germans. Just four months later, however, he felt “compelled to resort to similar methods” owing to “the repeated use … of asphyxiating gases in attacks on our positions” and so it became a part of everyday warfare in WW1.
Some 30,000 troops, it is estimated, were killed by gas, among them was Stephen Voaden who fell victim to this most inhumane weapon just two weeks before war ended. It is even more sad to recount that the news of his death was just one of many to shatter the Pinkhurst Estate in Lustleigh during the war years.
Born in the summer of 1883 to William and Ann Voaden of Wonford, in the parish of Heavitree, Stephen was one of four boys in a family of nine children. Very little is known of his early life except that “he had been of athletic habit” according to Reverend Johnson in his roll call of all those who served in the Great War. He certainly won several prizes for walking including The Saunders Cup which he was allowed to keep after successfully defending his title in 1908, completing in the two-mile course, on behalf of Heavitree Football Club, in 17 minutes and 6 seconds.
Stephen’s father, William, commonly known as John, was employed as a gardener in Heavitree and several of his sons followed in his footsteps, including Stephen, and it was this aspect of his life that brought him to Lustleigh, arriving in this parish in 1913 to tend the grounds at Pinkhurst, now known as Coombe Hill. He was in the employ of Brigadier Raymond Williams CB, a distinguished military officer who had just retired to this residence following four years as Assistant Adjutant and Quartermaster General at the Gibraltar Garrison. Perhaps it was shortly after settling into his new home that he spotted the Situation Wanted advertisement that Stephen had placed in the Devon and Exeter Gazette promoting himself as a “Gardener (single-handed) or Groom-Gardener, married”.
Stephen had married a lady by the name of Mary Jane Webber, also the issue of a gardener, in the early days of 1906, being blessed that summer with the arrival of their first-born, who was to bear his father’s name, but answer to Steve. Two years later, another son, Leonard, enriched their lives, then a third and then a fourth; but, then tragedy struck when Leonard died, aged just five years old. Whether or not that advertisement was deliberately designed to force a change of scenery later that same year, that was indeed its outcome as they swapped town for country.
Unfortunately, it was not to prove a happy move. In 1915, a fifth son arrived, only to be snatched from them some nine months later. Happier times may have seemed on the horizon as Mary Jane was eight months pregnant with yet another boy, but he perished just one day old. Their bad fortune continued the following year when another son died not long after his fourth birthday.
Against this backdrop, it is hard to contemplate Stephen’s state of mind when he joined the army just two months later; harder still to place oneself in Mary Jane’s shoes having lost four children in as many years and now waving goodbye to her husband unsure of what the future would hold. Her world was rocked yet again later that year, when her brother-in-law (Stephen’s brother, Richard), a private in the Devon Regiment, was killed in action. Through all of this, she presumably had the moral support of her husband’s employer, but then the Brigadier was to experience his own grief, the following year when his son, Charles Ellicombe Williams, was killed fighting the Bulgarians in Salonika.
Perhaps Mary Jane would have also been comforted by the odd letter home during Stephen’s two years in France with the Royal Field Artillery. Being a gunner (in ‘B’ Battery, 156th Brigade) and therefore grouped under ‘other ranks’ in war diaries and other despatches, it is hard to trace his movements and know precisely where he served and in which battles he fought. Enlisting at the end of July 1916, he would possibly not have been ready for mobilisation to witness The Somme which ended that November; it was probable, though, that he saw plenty of action the following year during the many phases of the Third Battles of Ypres.
As the war drew towards its conclusion, the autumn of 1918 witnessed victories in the Battles of the Hindenburg Line, described as “among the greatest-ever British military achievements” and The Final Advance in Picardy, said to be “the hardest fought of the final offensive actions”. It would have been during one of these operations that Stephen was dealt his final blow, succumbing to a gas attack. His demise, though, wasn’t instantaneous. He was possibly evacuated to a specialist gas unit which had been established in Boulogne, but he contracted pneumonia and was sent back across the channel. Sadly, just two days after reaching home soil, he died at the Western Height military hospital in Dover.
Stephen’s repatriation was complete when his body was returned to Heavitree for burial in St. Michael and All Angels churchyard, just a short walk from where he started married life and where his first son and namesake was born and who went on to live three-quarters of a century in Lustleigh, seeing out his last few years at Woodpark, directly opposite the War Memorial bearing his father’s name.
Gunner 163784 Voaden posthumously received the British War Medal and Victory Medal for his service. As well as Lustleigh’s granite tribute to him and his fellow fallen warriors, Stephen is also listed on a memorial panel in St. Michael and All Angels Church.
Stephen Voaden will be remembered on Sunday 28th October when the Bell Ringers will sound a half-muffled peel in his honour.
Sources used include:
- The War Poetry Website
- The Western Times
- The Long, Long Trail
- Lustleigh Parish Magazine
- Commonwealth War Graves Commission
- Ancestry & FindMyPast